For many years, a member of the GAA Board of Directors has presented a “My Carolina Story” at each of the board’s quarterly meetings, and we are sharing their stories with all of our alumni. Hark the Sound.
“Once I got here, the transformation from boy to man began.”
Jan. 19, 2008
When Davy asked me to come and share at this meeting, I said, “No problem, I speak all the time. I talk to juries, you know, speaking is my job, no problem.” But the closer we came to this day, it started to become difficult for me because talking about Carolina experiences, I could talk forever and ever about that because there were so many, and where do I begin? Do I begin with the story of coming here as a junior high school football player and going to Kenan Stadium and having it cemented in my mind at that point that, no matter what happens, I am going to Carolina, or does it go to when I first stepped foot on this campus five years later and was thinking, “I am this shy, wide-eyed country boy from down east coming to the biggest place I had ever been in my life.” Hinton James dormitory, I mean where do you go with those kinds of stories? It was hard to try to put together thoughts, so forgive me if I am all over the place, but I do want to share with you a little about my experience at Carolina.
I can say at the beginning, when I came to Carolina as a skinny little boy from Richlands, a small town, and I tell people Richlands is pronounced as two words but is spelled as one. So don’t say “Richlands” because it is “Rich Lands” down in Onslow County. I am a first-generation college student from my family. My mother had an eighth-grade education, and father had a 10th-grade education. I can tell you the day I was accepted to UNC was not only the proudest day of my life, but it was also pride for my family and the community because that small town had only a couple of people who had ever gone to college before me, and I think maybe only one of them had gone to The University of North Carolina. So UNC, Carolina, Chapel Hill — whatever it is, everyone knows that all over the state, so when someone says, “You got into Chapel Hill? You are going to Carolina?” The whole community supported me in that effort, so it was a lot of pride I felt by being honored to have been accepted by this University. Being the youngest of 10 children, the only one in my family to go to a major college or university, my brothers and sisters still prop me up with so much love and support in that regard. When I received the Young Alumni Award, they came down from Maryland and D.C. to be with me. When I had my 50th birthday in October, they flew out to San Diego to party with me, so that is the kind of love I have from my family and the support I had in coming to this University.
When I came to this University, my brother drove me here. Unfortunately, my dad had just passed away and was buried the day before I came to UNC. My mother was there and said, “You still have to go, you carry that banner.” There was so much love and pride that I came up here after that. My brother dropped me off and I am sitting in this dormitory in Hinton James thinking, “Wow.” First of all, I had never been in a building that tall in my life. I thought traveling was going from Richlands 14 miles to Jacksonville to Roses or getting on the bus and going to Clinton to play football or something like that. That was travel to me. To come all the way to Chapel Hill and to be in a high-rise dorm, which I thought was the biggest kick in the world. I just could not believe it.
Once I got here, the transformation from boy to man began. It came in different ways, not only from just walking to campus, from South Campus to North Campus or going into the Pit and sitting out there, but it really came from meeting the people. I was meeting people from New York City and Connecticut and Georgia and big cities like Charlotte and Winston-Salem and Raleigh. I mean, these were high falutin’ places! We don’t get that Down East, not in Richlands, not in a town where we had three stop lights and one Piggly Wiggly and now we just have one stop light and a Piggly Wiggly. That was size of the town I came from. So to meet people from Charlotte and to meet all these folks who had traveled the world and just listen to them and their stories and experiences, I started to grow as a person.
I had always been taught by my mother, who worked as a domestic for a white family down in Jacksonville. That family and our family were one family. I had always been able to not see race as a barrier. I started in an integrated school in the fourth grade in Onslow County. I was one of two black kids who went from a segregated elementary school to Richlands Elementary School, and my mother was so good about that. We never saw race as a barrier to anything. When I came here and began to interact with people all over the world and all over the country, it expanded my mind even more. That helped me become no longer the skinny, wide-eyed kid from Richlands, but someone who could sit down and have a conversation with folks with different opinions or perspectives. It helped broaden my mind so that now I can say that I am comfortable in any setting no matter where I am. I have been to the White House and to the outhouse and all over the house. So it doesn’t matter where I am I can talk to people from a point of respect. I think that is what we learn at Carolina. You learn to respect each other from you come from different backgrounds. I hope this University never loses sight of that.
I am so proud of the Carolina Covenant. It wasn’t around when I came along. I worked at work-study and had little grants. People like me who didn’t come from money can make it as this University and can benefit society by having come to a place like this, to what I believe is the greatest university in the world and to experience, not just the academic part of it but just the people part of it. I look around and I am sure you folks have more stories to tell, I am sure, than I do. But just being able to meet people from different backgrounds and understand that in order to make it in this world you have to respect people no matter what their station in life, no matter how much money they have in their pocket, no matter what their political ideologies are, no matter what their race, gender, sexual makeup. None of that really matters. That is not what God meant for it to be for us. He put us here with all these differences; you have to understand that. God had the plan to put us here with all these differences and he said, “Make it work.” You can make it work if you love each other, if you treat each other with respect. If you start from that basis then it doesn’t matter how much money you have in the bank, it doesn’t matter where you live or what kind of car you drive or what kind of clothes you wear. That is all irrelevant. I see that and I feel that on this campus. People say to me, “You come back all the way from San Diego just to come to a meeting three or four times a year? Are you crazy?” I have never thought about it that way. It is just what you do. Because I get energized when I come here. When I am sitting around having a cocktail on Friday night or sitting in this board meeting on Saturday mornings, I am just full of emotion because I feel the love. We are all connected not only by this University but by our experiences, whether they were the same or different. Those experiences have kept us together. That is what I take with me wherever I go.
I have had the good fortune after having graduated from Carolina to travel the world. This little country boy from Richlands, North Carolina. I have been to several dozen countries. I have been to different continents. I have been by sea, by air — I mean, who would have thought that little skinny kid that I know the University took a chance on, because looking at the score for admission here, there is no way going by my paper that I’m getting in The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill today, just no way. Not with my SAT scores. Fortunately, I was a well-rounded guy, so they looked beyond the paper, and saw the man I was going to be and I appreciate the University for that and am so proud to be an alumnus of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I say that with pride.
My friend, Jerome, whom I am embarrassing right now, he retired from the Navy a couple of years ago, is a friend of mine from San Diego. He grew up in Baltimore, Md. He never went to The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but I bet if you ask him any question about the UNC basketball team, past, present or future, he can answer it. He flew out here with me this weekend so he could attend the basketball game. So we are going to the Dean Dome today believe it or not, my first time in the Dean Dome is today. So that is Jerome Peyton, retired from the Navy. He will tell you that we bleed Carolina blue!
It is such a wonderful feeling to be among so many of you who feel the same way, and I am so proud of this University and the GAA for the work that you do on behalf of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
And that’s my story. Thank you!